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Hereward the Wake: Introduction

As Charles Plummer says, Hereward has a brief life in history and a long one in romance (Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel [1889], II, 265). The real Hereward (as recorded in Domesday Book and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) seems to have been a small south-Lincolnshire squire, holding lands from the abbeys of Crowland and Peterborough, and thus very much "the monk's man," although regularly in dispute as to tenancy agreements (The Chronicle of Hugh Candidus, ed. W. T. Mellows [1949] p. 79). The battle of Hastings which brought William of Normandy to power was not necessarily considered decisive in the more remote provinces, and Norman colonization was slow to reach this part of England. In the spring of 1070 the Danish king Swein Estrithson arrived in the mouth of the Humber, and was expected to make a bid for the crown. He despatched a body of housecarls under Jarl Asbjorn and Bishop Christian of Aarhus to secure a base on the Isle of Ely, a tract of fertile land capable of supporting six hundred households, some twelve by ten miles, in the middle of the swampy fenland of south Lincolnshire (Swanton, p. 188, note 18, and references there cited). Ely was admirably suited for defense; sea-going vessels could reach it via the Wash and River Ouse, but landwards it was cut off by swamps and a network of hidden waterways. Here the Danes were immediately joined by local people (many of whom were of Danish extraction), including Hereward. At Peterborough Abbey, on the western edge of the Fens two dozen miles away, the abbot Brand, perhaps Hereward's uncle, had recently died, and now the monks were warned that Hereward and his companions wanted to remove the monastery's valuables prior to the arrival of a Norman abbot, the tyrannical Turold, who was approaching with a band of 160 soldiers. The monks resisted Hereward and his men, who set fire to the town, forced the precinct gate and looted the monastery. Soon afterwards the Danes returned to Denmark, taking this loot with them. Hereward and his band remained behind, but were now personae non gratae with Turold and others who had taken up estates in the area.

Ely now became a notorious refuge for anti-Norman dissidents, including, among the better known, Earl Morcar of Northumbria, Bishop Æthelwine of Durham, and Siward Bearn, a substantial Midlands landowner. Popular rumor even suggested that Earl Eadwine, in fact now dead, and Archbishop Stigand, in fact now in prison, also sought shelter there (Freeman, IV, 9). At last William himself led an expedition against Ely. He bottled up the defenders, placing a naval blockade on the seaward side and then constructing a lengthy causeway to allow his land forces to advance through the swamps. Eventually the defenders surrendered to William who "did with them what he wanted." Florence of Worcester says that some he imprisoned, others he let go free, having cut off their hands or put out their eyes (Chronicon ex Chronicis, ed. B. Thorpe, II, 9). But Hereward slipped away with some of his followers and is heard of no more in any official record. Later, like some other resistance leaders, he may have been reconciled with the Conqueror. Gaimar suggests that he was in charge of an English contingent fighting on behalf of William in Maine, and was subsequently killed by a bunch of jealous Norman knights (L'Estoire des Engleis, ed. A. Bell, pp. 178-80). A man called Hereward held lands in Warwickshire at the time of William's death (Domesday Book, 23, Warwickshire, ed. J. Morris, 16: 26, 44, 48). The surname Hereward survived in Ely through the thirteenth century; thus, Robert Hereward, bailiff and seneschal of the Bishop of Ely c. 1296, and afterwards sheriff in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk (E. Miller, The Abbey and Bishopric of Ely, pp. 267-68).

The exploits of so notable a hero immediately captured the popular imagination. It is said that women and girls sang about him in their dances, and the author of the pseudo-Ingulf claimed to know ballads celebrating, and no doubt exaggerating, his deeds (Gesta III; Rerum Anglicarum Scriptorum Veterum, pp. 67-68). An extensive folk-literature was circulating within a few years of his death. Much of what was said seems to have been incorporated into the Gesta, from which extracts are printed here. He was soon ascribed fine family connections, and an elaborate pedigree by those keen to claim him as an ancestor. Of course, if he was actually related to one or another noble family, it would account for the prominence he is given in the record of resistance to William. The cognomen "the Wake" (i.e., the watchful one) is first recorded in a later chronicle attributed to one John of Peterborough (Chronicon Angliae Petriburgense) that acknowledges the necessary characteristics of the successful guerilla leader. Charles Kingsley's novel published in 1866, in which the story of this most famous of English freedom-fighters achieved its definitive modern form, is simply an engrossment of the Gesta material.

The origins of the Gesta are explained by the author in his introduction, addressed to an unnamed authority -- perhaps Hervey, first bishop of Ely, 1107-31. It was compiled in two stages. The first developed out of the author's attempts to read a few decayed and mutilated pages which had apparently formed part of a collection of stories written in the vernacular, allegedly by Hereward's "well-remembered" chaplain Leofric, whose intention it had been to assemble all the doings of giants and warriors he could find in ancient fables as well as in "true reports." On the basis of this, perhaps half read, half invented, the author constructed a plainly fictional account of Hereward's youthful exile (corresponding to chapters III-XIII). Story rather than history, geste rather than gesta, most of the formulae are readily paralleled in contemporary saga and romance. It was conventional that a young man in exile should visit the courts of foreign princes, and there prove himself in deeds of valor and prowess. Hereward is made to follow the traditional route of the fictional exile through the peripheral regions of Britain combating a monstrous bear in Northumberland, rescuing a princess in distress in Cornwall, and fighting in Ireland, before passing on to Flanders, the common resort of refugees from England at this time. In the course of all this, the personality of the future guerrilla-fighter is anticipated: courageous, quick-witted, adept at disguise and watchful -- sleeping not in but to one side of his bed for fear of night-time attacks. After a lengthy sojourn in Flanders, full of incident reminiscent of Harold Godwinson's period in Normandy, the hero is said to return to England.

At this point, apparently frustrated at finding no more adequate source, the author says he laid his work aside. But prompted by the original commissioner, he again takes up his pen and completes the book with the addition of a somewhat episodic account of Hereward's part in the defense of Ely, based on interviews with the hero's former associates in the anti-Norman campaign. Some of them are named, and one or two seem to have suffered retributive mutilation at the hands of the Normans. These chapters (chs. XIV-XXXVI passim) are entirely different in tone from the preceding farago. Albeit the reminiscences of now elderly veterans, and no doubt recalled "with advantages," these tales of guerrilla skirmishes have the air of reality. Even so, elements of romance creep in: the hero has a mysterious vision of St. Peter (ch. XXIX); a grey wolf guides his companions through the marsh, while will-o-thewisp lights flicker around their spear-tips (ch. XXIX); one of his enemies begs for mercy with his head through a lavatory seat (ch. XXX); his eventual reconciliation with the king is brought about by the attentions of a beautiful and wealthy widow (ch. XXXI).

Author and Date

If we are to believe the author's claim that he drew on first-hand rather than second-hand accounts, the great likelihood is that the Gesta was composed in the first quarter of the twelfth century, at a time when Hereward himself was presumably dead, but a number of former companions, albeit elderly, were still alive and capable of remembering their old campaigns.

Some time in the mid-twelfth century an unnamed monk of Ely Abbey compiled an eclectic history of his institution, in the course of which he says he drew on a Gesta Herewardi made "not long since" by a respected and "most learned" fellow monk called Richard (Liber Eliensis, p. 188). There is a close verbal parallel with our text, and it is reasonable to suppose that this Richard was the author of the extant Gesta or an earlier version of them. By that time Richard was apparently dead ("of blessed memory"). His identity is uncertain, but he was clearly familiar with the locality and of sufficient status to be able to call on assistants; but his Latin is not of the clearest and scarcely fits the description doctissimus ("most learned").

Manuscript and Edition

The Gesta survives in a single manuscript copy, added to a thirteenth-century collection of Peterborough Abbey charters, legal documents, etc., belonging to Robert de Swaffham, pittancer and cellarer of the abbey, now Peterborough Cathedral Manuscript 1, ff. 320-39. A reliable text was printed by T. D. Hardy and C. T. Martin in their edition of Geoffrey Gaimar's L'Estoire des Engles, Rolls Series 91, London (1888-89), I, 339-404.

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Select Bibliography

The Chronicle of Hugh Candidus. Ed. W. T. Mellows. London: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Chronicon Angliæ Petriburgense. Ed. J. A. Giles. London: David Nutt, 1845.

Chronicon ex Chronicis. Ed. Benjamin Thorpe. London: English Historical Society, 1848-49.

Domesday Book. Text and translation edited by John Morris. Chichester: Phillimore, 1975-92.

Freeman, Edward Augustus. The History of the Norman Conquest of England. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1867-79.

Gaimar, Geoffrey. L'Estoire des Engleis. Ed. Alexander Bell. Anglo-Norman Text Society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960.

Hayward, John. "Hereward the Outlaw." Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988), 293-304.

Liber Eliensis. Ed. E. O. Blake. Camden Third Series XCII, London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1962.

Miller, E. The Abbey and Bishopric of Ely. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Swanton, Michael. English Literature Before Chaucer. London: Longman, 1987.

Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel. Ed. Charles Plummer, based on an edition by John Earle. 2 vols. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1889.